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When I started my first traveling speech-language pathologist job in 2010, I was filled with the excitement of the travel lifestyle. I pictured myself traveling for a couple of years and then settling down. Somehow, over the years, the short-term travel lifestyle warped into my long-term way of being. Travel has its ups and downs. If you choose to do travel therapy for a considerable amount of time, here are some of the downsides.
Not Knowing Where Home Is
This can be true for some travelers, but not necessarily all. I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania that barely had 2000 residents. All my life, I always knew that place as home. Every time I came home from college or graduate school, it felt like home. It felt familiar and comforting.
Somewhere along the travel road, that changed. When I came home, it didn’t feel like home. In fact, I felt more at home on the road than in my own house. It’s weird how a temporary apartment, filled with furniture that didn’t belong to me, and decorations that didn’t belong to me, could make me feel more comfortable and feel a greater sense of belonging than in my own home surrounded by my own things.
Not feeling at home is something that I struggled with for a long time. In my travels, I kept on searching for that place where I could feel at home–the place that I wanted to come back to and wanted to be. For now, I have found a sense of home in Hawaii. Although it is one of the most expensive places to live in the country, I did decide to move here as my home base because it was the first place in years that I truly wanted to be and wanted to come home to. I’m crossing my fingers that the feeling will last and I can continue to afford to live here. If not, I will be left with that returned feeling of not knowing where I truly feel at home.
Being A Generalist Versus A Specialist
When I think about my friends who are very satisfied with their clinical work, a lot of them tend to be specialists in a certain subset of therapy. Many SLPs I know are very specialized in FEES, voice therapy, pediatric feeding, and even AAC. They have even started businesses and have become highly recognized and honored for their work.
As a travel therapist, you tend to have very generalized skills. This is not a bad thing and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad clinician. In fact, you can be an excellent generalist. However, it does mean that you don’t specialize in something. It can be hard to find specialty jobs (e.g. hand clinics, voice clinics, etc.) as a traveler. Even if you find one placement in a specialty, chances are you cannot sustain year-round work in your specialty. Therefore, if there is an area that you are super passionate about and want to specialize in, it can be very hard to accomplish with travel. Instead, you may end up working more general, all-around assignments where you pick up a bunch of different skills.
As a novice clinician, I think the generalized skills that travel assignments give you can be a great base for your clinical career. Learning how the continuation of care works between hospitals, SNFs, home health, etc. and the nuances of each setting is very valuable to a career in healthcare. As you advance into a more mature clinician, you may consider settling down to get some specific skills. Now that I’ve been practicing for 10 years, I am bumping my head against the wall a bit with this one. I want my dysphagia skillset to get stronger and I have thought about learning and practicing FEES. This is something that won’t realistically happen on an assignment; it’s something I would have to go perm, or set up my own business, to accomplish.
As a traveler, you are always the one saying goodbye. At first, this can be exciting. The friends that you made on your assignment are excited for you and perhaps even jealous that you get to travel and do such fun things. However, after a while it gets old. Being the one to constantly say goodbye can have an emotional toll.
To be honest, I almost never tell my patients about my “last day” and try to avoid it with co-workers. On my last day of work, I usually bring donuts in the morning for the staff, but then try to sneak out in the afternoon before the goodbyes start flooding in. It’s just too hard. I’ve said goodbye too many times and it’s easier for me to ignore that it’s happening than to chase down every last staff member and make a big deal of it.
If you notice it’s hard to say goodbye, you may go full circle into detaching yourself emotionally from situations and relationships. This is a game you can play with yourself when you refuse to let yourself get close to anybody on assignment because you know you’re leaving. You may feel unattached and lack close connections, like that of a partner. Dating can be hard. While you want to be with somebody, you don’t want to deal with the “what if” when you pack your bags and leave. You build up walls around yourself and your emotions. Those walls can be hard to break and can leave you feeling unfulfilled.
The true long-term travelers may not deal with loneliness as much as the short-term travelers, but it is still there. Long-term travelers have pushed through the initial phase of being lonely on assignment and have learned how to cope with being alone and strategies to meet people on assignments. However, loneliness can creep up on you. When it does, you question yourself and why you are working this type of job. Would it be better to go home and be with your family? You think that maybe you could find a spouse or partner if you just settle down.
Missing Important Events
Holidays, weddings, birthdays, conferences, and parties to name a few. As a traveler, it is hard to be at a certain place at a certain time. You meet so many people along your journey and have your friends and family back at home. Often you have to pass on invitations to big events, like weddings, and have to miss holiday gatherings because you cannot get the time off of work.
Difficulty Settling Down
Travel does not have to be forever. There are those times when you want to settle down, and your mind and body are telling you to settle down, however, you struggle. Once you get a taste of the travel lifestyle, it can be so hard to settle down. Even if you LOVE the location that you’re choosing to call home and are surrounded by amazing people, going to work can be a struggle knowing that there is not a contract end date in sight. With a perm position, you have to go to team meetings and engage in office politics. You only get three weeks off a year and have to book it months in advance with your manager’s approval. The struggle is real. Living a normal perm life after travel can be a challenge. In some ways, you might always be looking for the next best thing, or wanting to jet off to a new adventure.
Ultimately, travel therapy, whether in the short-term or long-term, has its pros and cons. There are some downsides to traveling for years and years. Although, for those of us who choose this path, it is hard to see our lives any other way.